A few years ago, I was flattered to be included into a weekly luncheon group of mostly long since retired gentlemen. And I do mean gentlemen. Seating takes a while as each person defers to the other to sit first. It's rather like golf, where measurements are made to see who is farthest away from the pin and therefore must make the first move.
These elderly veterans shuffle up the sidewalk and into the restaurant. The owner has set aside a room for our usual 20 or so luncheon attendees.
Our meeting place is located near the tip of the California's Monterey Peninsula. The Chamber of Commerce labels itself the "Last Hometown." If this is so, then this weekly homecoming parade of honored veterans should have a gallery of admirers throwing flowers and confetti. As it is, I have them all to myself. I feel thrilled, privileged, and blessed.
The Friday lunches have become the highlight of my week. This side of retirement age myself, I play the part of the eager kid asking, "And what did you do in the war, Daddy?"
With a little prodding and the mention of a few key events, the memories come tumbling out. The 80-year-old face beams with 20-something eyes. The speech quickens. The posture straightens a bit. Hands grip imagined flight controls. The head is on a swivel in pursuit of the Luftwaffe.
The first course is served as we sit in a cold preflight briefing room. The wing commander points to our target and gives us our formation assignment. Ketchup is passed. No. 2 engine comes to life, The rain pours down. The butter is passed.
I'm surrounded! To my left, my wingman has been speed-diving a P-63 King Cobra. One wing snaps off. The resulting snap roll tears off the other wing, which tears off the tail.
Oh my gosh! He's diving straight down, semiconscious, having had his head smashed around in the cockpit. The door has been torn off. Wind. Clawing out into the slipstream. Pull the cord. One swing and, thud, the ground. A hundred feet more, and the chute wouldn't have opened.
"Were you injured?"
"Yeah, a little. Hey, did I ever tell you about when my P-38 had a seized wheel on takeoff? Pass the salt, please."
Across the table, the general has just made a night jump ahead of D-Day. "Heck," he says, "now our jump into Holland at Nijmegen, that was hairy. Our group invaded Germany. We had a Nazi Mercedes for a day. My bunch sorta liberated it when we got to Hitler's mountain retreat of Berchtesgarten. Man, that was beautiful." Ice water tumbles into a glass.
Now we're bobbing over the chop of San Francisco Bay, heading over toward Berkeley, then lining up into the wind, aimed directly toward the Golden Gate Bridge. It's wartime, and all the Pan Am pilots and planes have been commandeered. Full power. The Boeing 317 Clipper rumbles and lurches as its four massive engines claw at the air and free the ship with wings into the embrace of the fog.
Two hundred miles out of Hawaii, the first officer gets the order to go forward into the bow and prepare the docking lines for landing. The salad with blue-cheese dressing is delicious. The young Pan Am officer really has not done this before. Oh, look there! Some loose clamps on the cargo door. Just a little twist and ... swish! The entire door flies off. Thousands of feet of the Pacific lie below. The No. 3 engine and propeller are menacingly close. He grabs onto a cargo net. Sourdough bread is passed.
Across the room, soldier boots are clicking on the brick roads. Tanks, trucks, the smell of diesel fuel. The smell of fear; it's a retreat. The P-51 pilot wakes up. Sputtering straw from his mouth, straining to remember where he is, the pilot carefully peeks through the slats in the barn wall. Tattered swastikas, worn-out shoes, haggard faces; the Germans are retreating from France.
The shot-down pilot has evaded the enemy these three weeks. "If the Germans were going that way, my guys must be this way. Let's go!"
The sound of war becomes the clink of salad forks. Memories are absent-mindedly traced on the dew of water glasses. Fearful events survived, accomplishments made, families loved, the experiences of a well-aged life are gently poured out so that each may partake. The past feels so current; the blessings so ageless.